Covid deaths are down to a trickle, but what about the indirect consequences of the pandemic: deaths that come from people failing to access timely medical treatment for other conditions? Cancer Research UK has estimated what it believes to be the backlog from disturbance to cancer services and the reluctance of some people to seek medical advice over the past year.
Between the start of the pandemic and March of this year, it calculates, 45,000 fewer people started cancer treatment than would have been expected without a pandemic. Looking specifically at cancer screening programmes it estimates that 9,200 fewer people started cancer treatment after referrals from these tests. That was equivalent to a 42 per cent drop. The numbers have started to recover but quite slowly: in March this year, only 3 per cent more people started cancer treatment than under normal March 2019.
It is inevitable that the delay in cancer treatment will result in more deaths over the coming years, though we won’t know for some time just how severe this effect will be. But will this extra toll be the fault of the pandemic itself, of an NHS that was overloaded by Covid patients — or will it be the fault of government messaging? Arguments on this point will no doubt continue to rage, and may never be resolved. Speaking to MPs last November, for example, chief medical officer Chris Whitty firmly put the blame on the pandemic itself: extra cancer deaths, he intimated, should not be treated as victims of lockdown. On the contrary, many have argued, the more overburdened the NHS is with Covid patients, the less capacity it has for other patients.
That is obviously true when put like that. However, hospitals have not spent the entire past year bursting with Covid patients.